Washington gets in the way of Ohio rebuilding

Rob Portman
At a time when home values have declined and many families are struggling, Washington should not get in the way of Ohioans who are working hard to stabilize and improve their neighborhoods. One way to reestablish home values and strengthen communities is by demolishing abandoned and unsafe buildings.

Sadly, vacant properties are a significant problem in our state. Ohio is home to nearly 100,000 such properties awaiting demolition. These abandoned buildings have a negative impact on surrounding property values, which have already declined as a result of the housing market collapse and foreclosure crisis. In fact, Ohio’s housing price index, which tracks the housing market, is down 13 percent over the past five years.

And it is far worse in some areas. In some urban neighborhoods in Cleveland, for instance, housing stock has sunk to just 10 percent of its assessed value.

Think about that: not a 10 percent drop in value. But housing values dropping to just 10 percent of what they once were. Obviously, this situation is stalling a much needed rebound in the housing market.

Abandoned properties also represent a serious risk to public safety and have become havens for drugs, crime and other unwanted activity. Police and fire departments tell me these houses quickly get ripped apart by scrap thieves, creating extremely dangerous – and sometimes structurally unsound – conditions for first responders when they’re dispatched.

The first step is to demolish these properties, so the community can get to work on rebuilding.

I’ve been impressed by the work of what are called land banks. Throughout Ohio, these organizations have proactively gotten involved in this effort, forming public-private partnerships and implementing other innovative approaches.

Since 2010, to take the Cleveland area again as an example, the Cuyahoga Land Bank has demolished over 800 residential structures.

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made these efforts more difficult by reinterpreting the federal regulations governing asbestos removal to make it harder for groups to demolish multiple individual properties. I first heard about this problem from the land banks as well as other organizations trying to help.

I share the concern about the risks associated with asbestos. So do the land banks, which are taking great care when performing the demolitions. Of course, there should be appropriate rules for asbestos removal. However, abandoned residential structures do not pose the same risks as commercial buildings. Our office has heard from dozens of local officials around Ohio who tell us the real threat to public safety is in fact these vacant homes not being torn down.

Previously, single-family residences were not covered by the EPA’s regulations unless they were part of a larger group of buildings demolished at a single site. But now all individual properties under the control of land banks must comply with the regulations, driving up demolition expenses by 25 to 40 percent.

This is another example of the regulatory overreach of this administration – and another reason to support the Regulatory Accountability Act, bipartisan, bicameral legislation I’ve introduced to require commonsense cost-benefit analysis in the rulemaking process. With the crisis we’re facing, we need to be sure the federal government is not making the problem more costly and difficult with unreasonable regulations.

That’s why last month, I sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson expressing my strong concerns and asking her to work with the Ohio EPA and local stakeholders to address the issue. I am continuing to do all I can to change the EPA approach.

We are simply asking that the EPA treat these land banks the same as any individual contractor or property owner.

Last month, my staff took part in a demolition in the Slavic Village neighborhood of Cleveland, organized by the Cuyahoga Land Bank. They saw firsthand how the added costs are complicating the land banks’ efforts, preventing them from demolishing other abandoned properties in the exact same neighborhoods and on the exact same streets.

Lima, Ohio Mayor David Berger made the same point after he saw my letter to Administrator Jackson. He believes the EPA shift “probably doubled the cost of any individual demolition … which obviously means we can do less demolitions.”

Public-private partnerships throughout Ohio are pursuing innovative ways to rebuild abandoned parts of our state. A one-size-fits-all, big-government regulatory approach out of Washington should not stand in the way or drive up the costs. Local communities should have the flexibility to do all the demolitions they need to do, without unnecessary, burdensome government red tape.

Rob Portman is a United States Senator from Ohio.